I figured it'd be waaaaaay too long to be a good social media post (not that I've been stopped by that before, mind you), so I'm writing about it here.
Let me start with an overview of the game. This will probably run a bit long.
... just like the game.
In fact, buckle up. This is going to be a crazy-long post.
Ever play the Civilization computer game? It was (reportedly) inspired by this game. Each turn, you'll go through a number of steps to grow your civilization, build cities, trade with other cultures, suffer through calamities, acquire technologies, and loop back around to the beginning again.
It looks crazy, but it's not.
Tax Collection - the more cities you have, the more taxes you need to collect. If you don't have enough tokens to collect taxes, Bad Things Happen.
Population Expansion - your dudes on the map turn into more dudes on the map. Each space you have will add up to two more population markers.
Movement - Move your dudes on the map. Want to build a city? Move a bunch of dudes into a space. You can build almost anywhere, but some spaces are better-suited to it. Want to pick a fight with another player? Move into their spaces with your dudes.
Conflict - It's important to remember that this is not a war game. Conflict does happen, but if you find that you're involved in a lot of conflict, then you're probably not doing well. Two players who spend the entire game feuding with one another tend to both sink rather than one sinking and one rising.
City Construction - Got enough dudes in a space? Build a city. Keep in mind that every city on the board requires a certain number of dudes somewhere on the map, too, or else the city starves. "Remove surplus population" is not, by the way, a stealth reference to something Ebenezer Scrooge once said. Every spot on the board has a maximum number of dudes who can hang out there. If you have more in a space than it can support, they starve and are removed.
Trade Cards Acquisition - There are nine decks of trading cards. Ten if you include water. You get one card per city that you hold. Your first card will always be from the '1' deck, your second card from the '2' deck, and so on. Higher numbers are better, more valuable stuff. So the '1' deck is fur and ochre and the like. The '9' deck is gold and pearls. BUT lurking in each deck are Calamities. Bad Things. Floods. Famines. Slave revolts. Superstition. Pirates. Barbarians. You can also spend money to buy '9' cards, and some technologies (see below a bit) allow you to buy other cards (which is a good way to move tokens out of your taxes to avoid those tax revolts).
Trade - This really is the meat of the game. Once you have three (or more - ideally more) cards, you can participate in trading. Ignore the arrows in this image - it's a crop from the rulebook that was talking about something else.
Every trade has to include a minimum of three cards. You can trade more, but you can't trade any fewer than that. Also, you only need to be honest about two of those cards (the first two you mention) and you can't even mention calamities. But those are also traded around here. Usually as a third card in a trade. So you can get badly screwed. And see that "Famine" card there? That third one? See the words "NON-TRADEABLE" under the title? You can't get rid of that card. If you get a non-tradeable card during card acquisition, you're going to suffer.
So what you're trying to do is get sets of cards. That lacquer card is a set of one card right now. The numbers at the bottom are the points they're worth. So one lacquer is 5 points. Two lacquers is 20 points. Three is 45 points, all the way up to six of them, which is 180 points.
Higher-numbered cards (more cities, remember) are worth more points, but the calamities are worse, too. So when someone offers you a high-value card for your low-numbered cards, you're probably going to get screwed. And when someone offers what you're looking for, you're probably going to get screwed.
Calamity Selection - No matter how badly you got screwed in trading, you can only ever suffer from a maximum of three calamities in a single turn. Determined randomly, of course.
Calamity Resolution - This is where your civilization dies as all the bad things you just traded for hit you. Your cities will be destroyed by barbarians. Your people will panic and burn their own homes down. Volcanoes will erupt next door. A civil war will erupt and suddenly that guy from the other end of the board will control half of your stuff.
Some calamities are so bad that they'll hit multiple players.
Special Abilities - These require that you have certain technologies. Don't worry. You won't get any of these, because you'll be too busy getting pounded by calamities to be able to do anything.
Remove Surplus Population - Remember that whole "people starving" thing? Well calamities can change things so that your people starve again. And it's possible that your cities will crumble from lack of support following some of these calamities.
Civilization Advances Acquisition - If you have any trade good sets left, you can now spend them to buy technologies. There are a ton of techs to choose from and they do a variety of things. Some of them make calamities less calamitous for you. Some of them will allow you to force things on other people. Or buy additional trade goods. All of them give discounts on other techs that you'll buy in the future, and all of them are worth victory points. Tier 1 techs are worth 1 VP, Tier 2 are worth 3, and Tier 3 are worth 6.
AST Alteration - There is a big board in this game that you use to keep track of whether your civilization is on track or falling behind. There are a series of "walls" that you'll hit as the game goes on. The first wall is "Do you have three cities?" If you meet the requirements, you advance. If you don't, then you don't advance. If you have zero cities, you actually regress. Each space that you advance is worth five victory points. This also serves as the turn tracker.
So how did my game on Saturday go?
When we got there, the hosts had already set the board up. This, by the way, saved us about two hours. Because you need to make sure that you have the correct set of trade cards for the number of players you have, and they need to be divided into East and West sets and then by number and then shuffled in a certain order. All of the techs need to be laid out, and players need to have their starting unit set in a certain spot on the (six-foot-long) game board.
We drew nations out of a cup as soon as we got there.
Going into this, I knew that some players were new and some players were more experienced. I knew who was going to be difficult to beat and who was going to be easy to pound on. And I resolved to be nice to the new players. Avoid trading them terrible calamities, give them reasonable trades. Maintain stable and peaceful borders with them if they wound up near me.
And then I drew my nation. Nubia. For those of you who don't know it, it's just Southeast of Egypt, and South of Saba (which is on the Arabian Peninsula). Their expansion options boil down to "Into Egypt" and "Into the Arabian Peninsula." Because everything else is desert. In theory, they can move into North Africa and squabble with Carthage, but in practice it's not worth the effort. Leave Carthage to Iberia, Egypt, and Rome.
And then my wife (a new player) drew Egypt. Egypt isn't a difficult power, provided you have friendlyish neighbors. But they need to work with their neighbors to draw borders right away. And they need to figure out which neighbors they can trust and which they can't.
This put me in A Spot. Because not expanding into Egypt makes it look like I'm giving my wife favoritism. And the player playing Saba was one of the more experienced players at the table. Trustworthy, yes, but to a point. Like everyone should be at this game.
It ended up not being an issue.
About four turns in, I managed to end a trading phase with two Major Calamities. I was knocked from six cities to three. The next turn, I rebuilt. Partially. And then wound up with two more Major Calamities. One of which put Barbarians on my Western border (with Egypt), which made it damn near impossible to expand into Egypt even if I'd wanted to. And then another player was hit by pirates, who also stole one of my cities.
That, by the way, was a dick move on the part of the other player. The two calamities had knocked me down to two cities. After two turns in a row of being hit by two Major Calamities, I was already looking at an uphill struggle just to stay in the game. Taking one of my cities and turning it over to pirates meant that I was effectively out of it. Because successfully attacking cities is really expensive. There ain't no coming back.
But I was determined to try.
Meanwhile, Carthage was having similar issues. Rome, Iberia, and the Celts seemed to have an alliance (which was bad for Carthage, Minoa, and Hellas). Worth noting: Hellas was a first-time player who is not likely to ever play again.
That alliance? It benefited Rome much more than it benefited Iberia or the Celts, because Rome could ignore its Western flank and so easily pushed back on Carthage and Minoa and Hellas. Hellas, meanwhile, struggled to hold on against Hatti, the Celts, Rome, and (to a lesser extent) Minoa (who tried to play nice with Hellas because she saw how big a threat Rome was).
In the East, Kushan manged to push back Parthia and Indus. Maurya and Dravidia came to terms early and struggled to push Kushan and Indus back. Persia and Parthia also pushed on Indus. Since Indus was the one who hit me with the pirates, I'm not crying any tears over their struggles.
Maurya was actually doing very well until I made them a secondary victim of one of my calamities (which almost took them out of the game). And then they benefited from a Civil War in Saba that they used to invade me. I had that one coming, though.
The rest of the game for me was a struggle. I never got above four cities for more than a turn or two, which meant it was very difficult to get sets with enough value that I was able to buy techs. I didn't have anything people wanted to trade for, as they were working on high-value sets. I was barely surviving for roughly ten hours of gameplay.
Meanwhile, Egypt was stable. She wasn't able to grow much, because she built cities in a way that made it more difficult for her to grow (a rookie mistake, and something I should have remembered could be a problem). And every time she traded with Rome, she got a calamity, which has to have been extremely frustrating.
We wrapped around 10 pm, after starting at 8 am. I wound up 15th out of eighteen. Steph was 17th. Indus was 18th. Kushan won, with Rome in second.
Here are my takeaways from the game:
- It's not a war game. This needs to be drilled into new players. If they approach it as a war game, they are going to lose, and lose badly.
- Trading is the key to the game. And not just trading, but also not trading (selective boycotts and embargoes) is important, too. Because if everyone refuses to trade with someone, they will have a difficult time getting sets and they will be stuck with whatever calamities they drew. So when you have a runaway leader, stop trading with them.
- Watch where you build your cities. You can cripple your growth by building them too early or in the wrong place (or both).
- This is not a war game. I know I mentioned this earlier, but it's an important enough note that it needed to be mentioned again.
- When it's not your turn, stand away from the table. I can't even count the number of times I had to ask someone to move because it was my turn to move and I couldn't get to my pieces.
- Having someone work as an MC is a fantastic idea. Our hosts served as MCs and kept the game going. They were also playing, and I suspect that their game suffered a bit because of the dual-duty (they were Saba and Minoa). But it kept the game moving, and this game can drag if there isn't someone driving.
Despite the frustrations I experienced, I want to play again. Largely because I just want to do better.